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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Overcast
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Encore Studio's 9-1-1! dramatizes, with laughs and music, the problems of calling for help
The 90-minute show is a collection of four short plays.
The 90-minute show is a collection of four short plays.

Though it's occasionally unfocused, Encore Studio for the Performing Arts' 9-1-1! is a frequently funny, sometimes poignant examination of how calling the emergency number can be a little -- or a lot -- different if you have a disability.

The 90-minute show, which opened Friday night at the Bartell Theatre, is a collection of four short plays written by the troupe, the bulk of whose members are disabled in various ways. The first piece, "9-1-1 and Its Many Uses," caught the audience's attention immediately, opening with a projected video montage of grimly amusing children's drawings and then deftly interspersing live theater with very prettily filmed segments of the story.

In it, Toni (played by Jenny Kopp) led Jacob (Alex Szele) on a farcical chase, as she stole cell phones to call 911, demanding that an ambulance be sent for her, but not exactly specifying the symptoms of the heart attack she was pretending to suffer. Much of 9-1-1!'s humor was similarly self-aware, showcasing the communication problems that can easily arise when an emergency operator, connected only by voice, doesn't realize she or he is dealing with someone with special needs.

But other bits turned the jokes in different directions. The second piece, "Help Is On the Way," was a mélange of even shorter shorts, in which the cast struggled with absurd touch-tone menus and operators who ranged from ditzy to racist (in a darkly comic way) to murderous (in an even more darkly comic way). Not every story line was entirely clear, but all drew laughs, and the performances were right on. Joe Wahlers, in a wig, stole the show.

He did the same in the next piece, "Creative Fact-Finding," where the staff running an Art for Every Body class struggled to maintain order while trying to uncover the cause of a student's mysterious injuries. The connection to 911 was looser than in the other parts, but led by Dawn Cieszynski's Pollyanna-ish teacher Lucy and Christie Stadele's gripey Bridget, the cast delivered a verisimilitude that compensated.

The final short, "Putting Fires Out," offered an in-depth look at the laughter and pain even ordinary situations can present for someone with a disability -- in musical form. Stranded at home without her aide to help her go to the bathroom and get into bed, Connie Alsum is eventually able to convince an operator to send help. Three hunky firefighters arrive, but unfortunately, it's not as simple as just lifting her out of her wheelchair. In this story inspired by one of her own experiences, Alsum was lively and witty and sharp, and all three firemen -- but particularly Morey Burnard's -- were great.

The show is broken up by a 15-minute intermission after the second play, and there is some adult language. 9-1-1! is a lot of fun, with a flavor only Encore can bring to the stage.

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